Letter from Europe - Paris: Can the French left come back? - Denis MacShane

A decade ago the French Socialist Party won the presidency, formed a government, and seemed in the saddle. The French left has spent more than half of the last 40 years in power – a better record than Labour in Britain or the Social Democrats in Germany.

Letter from Europe December 2022

Denis MacShane

Paris: Can the French left come back?

A decade ago the French Socialist Party won the presidency, formed a government, and seemed in the saddle. The French left has spent more than half of the last 40 years in power – a better record than Labour in Britain or the Social Democrats in Germany.

Today France seems devoured by its left(s) - divided into a kaleidoscope of factions and personalities, they are unable and unwilling to unite to bid for power.

The French 5th Republic constitution doesnt help. Devised by General de Gaulle after a coup in 1958 to put down an army uprising against Algerian independence, it created an executive presidency, with the elected president having quasi-monarchical powers.

François Hollande was elected President ten years ago but was devoured by different left factions nominally within the Socialist Party, unwilling to accept leadership or agree on common policies.

In this confused and self-indulgent politics, the chances of creating a French modern social democratic politics like Germany, the Iberian peninsular, most Nordic states and now the post-Corbyn Labour are far from good.

Rather like Labour veering into Jeremy Corbyns embrace as a reflex rejection of any memory of Blair and Brown and their aides who formed the shadow cabinet 2010-15, the French left rejected compromise and supported Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Briefly, a socialist minister, Melanchon is famed for his Nigel Farage-style gift of punchy, combative television one-liners.

Melenchon’s movement, La France Insoumise (LFI) – literally meaning Unsubmissive France – is hardly a political party but rather a one-man show, displaying a striking resemblance to Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum. The line is late 20th-century leftism: Hostility to the US, indulgence for the Kremlin, Europe seen as a neo-liberal conspiracy, embrace of any and every militant movement, and problems with anti-semitism, as Mélenchonites parade effigies of Macron with a big hooked nose as the servant of the Rothschild bankers.

The LFI represents a catch-all leftism of protest, not government. Yet Mélenchon came third behind the hard-right Marine Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election in April: following the fairly brutal first and second round system, "First you eliminate, then you chose”.

The only way Mélenchon can cause trouble for Macron is if he allies with Marine Le Pen on key votes in the National Assembly, where Macron lost the national assembly elections following his narrow re-election win as president in the spring of this year.

This is, however, happening as the French Left gently but albeit visibly push to move to an electable left. For some it is defined as social democracy, but a more accurate definition might be an electable-governing” left. It is linked to a network of Mayors from the Socialist Party.

One of the best left journalists in France, Laurent Joffrin, who has spent nearly 30 years editing either Libération (a sort of livelier more cultural Guardian) or LObs (a french New Statesman written by journalists and academics) left off editing 2 years ago to launch a new movement, Les Engagés (the Engaged), as a way to encourage renovation and new thinking on the socialist left.

He has now merged efforts with a former general secretary of the Socialist Party, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, an energetic intellectual who created a powerful anti-racist movement in France, after serving as a Socialist Party deputy and a close aide of Lionel Jospin and François Hollande.

They have launched the Social Democratic Lab(oratory). At a launch workshop in a Paris suburb, there was a serious debate from a range of speakers and ages on what priorities a reformist left in France needs.

At the heart of their argument is Europe, which for the continental governing left, is a key component of their post-national idea of government, and social-ecological justice. Something that has oftentimes caused huge strain between the British Left and that of our sister parties on the continent: Labours reversion to a 1950s Labourism of One Nation when concerning Europe remains a barrier to cross-Channel cooperation on progressive politics.

Mélenchons La France Insoumise, a party that is less than the sum of its component elements, the Socialist Party, the remnants of the French Communist Party, and the Greens, is also badly split between confrontational and reformist wings.

The anti-Hollande faction within the Socialists – think Corbyn and McDonnell in Labour terms – helped to destroy his presidency. Five years later they are further from power than ever before. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 71, has no more chance of being elected President of France than Jeremy Corbyn had of becoming Britains Prime Minister. The Socialists have just 27 members of of Frances 577-strong parliament and Anne Hidalgo, Paris’ Mayor and the party candidate for the presidency, achieved just 1.8 per cent of votes cast.

President Macron has no domestic political project left inside France and now lacks a parliamentary majority. He increasingly patrols the world playing the world statesman at 44. Already the après-Macron politics has begun. He cannot run for a third term in 2027. He has no obvious successor. He lost France when the ‘gilets jaunes rose up against his technocratic bankers rule in the late Autumn of 2018. There is no one in the Macronie – the centre-right ministers who took jobs in his government after 2017 – who have the stature of a president.

The question we must ask ourselves now is a simple one: can the reformist left with a social-ecological project, persuade the romantic and rejectionist left to look to mutating into an electable left? A straw in the wind is the Mélonchite deputy François Ruffin. He is a less self-important version of Owen Jones, a journalist, film-maker, belonging solidly on the left but without any party roots or attachment.

He is saying he wants to socially-democratise’ left politics in France, putting him closer to Sir Keir Starmer or Olaf Scholz than the Mélenchon-Corbyn generation – now solidly routed in their eighth decade.

Ruffin is a free-lancer, but there is no one in the Socialist Party who has any top-line national status. The leadership question like the power question are subjects the modern cultural, identity, post-worker, left prefers to avoid thinking about.

Yet politics like nature abhors a vacuum. Laurent Joffrin and his Social Democratic Laboratory are toiling in the wilderness for the time being.  But where progressive politics has succeeded in Europe, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, or North America, it is ultimately based on escaping from the crowd-pleasing comfort zone of rejectionist identity leftism, or the politics of anti-European socialism in one country, and on telling the bigger truths to the voters.


Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe and writes on European policy and politics. He is a member of the Executive Committee of Labour Movement for Europe